Making ethical and sustainable decisions when we shop can be difficult. You’re in the supermarket aisle and reach for a bottle of shampoo, asking yourself, has this product been made under fair labour conditions? Were the ingredients sustainably sourced and could any of them be harmful to health? We tested out the GoodGuide app, which aims to make shopping for green products a little easier.
What Does GoodGuide Do?
GoodGuide is a mobile app designed to help consumers make informed decisions about the things that they buy. Covering a range of different products, from household cleaners and pet food to clothing, cars and toilet paper, the team behind the app has analysed and rated a whole range of items based on their health, societal and environmental impact. Looking to see whether products contain potentially harmful ingredients, how companies treat their workers, and whether they use resources responsibly, the app is designed to help users “instantly find safe, healthy, green and socially responsible products based on scientific ratings.”
How User-friendly Is It?
The first big issue with the app is user-friendliness. The app is designed to supply you with information while you’re on the go, and for that reason it has a handy barcode scanner built into it. Just wave it over the product, one quick beep and you’ve got the exact item that you’re looking at, and the rating there right there in front of you.
But unfortunately it didn’t prove that easy. I tried using the app to scan products I had bought in Germany, the UK and Brazil (where I was based while testing the app) and not a single one of them was recognised by the app. I was left assuming that the app only really works with US barcodes, which isn’t much use if you’re using it from anywhere outside America, as I was. Without the simplicity of the barcode option, I was left having to browse the products using the search function; only slightly more complicated, but again, another source of frustration. For some reason – maybe a bug in the app? – I just couldn’t get the search function to work. Even using names of products that I knew were in the database, nothing was ever found, and I was always redirected back to the complete list of products. I ended up having to search for products manually, going to the right category and then working my way down the list alphabetically – a time-consuming experience when faced with over 200,000 different items.
While the problems mentioned above effectively made the app completely unusable for me on a day-to-day situation, once I had gone through the pain-staking process of finding the product, the way the information was presented was clear and easy to understand. Ratings are broken down into three categories: Health, Environmental and Social, and each one is given a score between one and 10, with the numbers also accompanied by a simple traffic light system, green for the higher scores, amber and red for the lower ones. Clicking on “Behind the Rating” will give you more information about what the rating in each category means, and when it comes to food, personal care, and household cleaning items, you’re also shown a list of ingredients, each one assessed according to their risk level, identified with the same traffic light colours.
While the information is clearly presented within the app, I was using it on an Android phone, where the design is much less eye-catching and attractive than that shown on the iPhone screen shots on the app’s official website. There’s not a lot of love gone into the Android design. Of course, if searching for products were simpler, and the whole app itself were more user-friendly, the design would be less of an issue. As it is, the whole app feels a bit like an afterthought.
Does the Information Fit to Your Region?
While the app is available in many different languages, from Brazilian Portuguese to Japanese, the main problem is that the app is incredibly region specific. I’ve tried it on products from Germany, from the UK, and ones from Brazil, without any success. And while of course I was able to find products that were applicable to me and available in my region, such as Nestle chocolate bars, Weleda face creams and Colgate toothpaste, the majority of the products, at least the ones that are rated most highly – usually smaller, organic or fair trade companies – seem to be brands only available in America.
Does It Offer Suggestions for Sustainable Alternatives?
The website does, which is really useful, but the app doesn’t.
Is the Content Up-to-date?
While there is a lot of content available on the app, it may be not particularly up to date. The last update of the iPhone version was in 2015 and, according to the information on Google Play, the Android version last received an update in 2012.
Is Their Advice Trustworthy?
This is where GoodGuide really lays their cards out on the table. While the rating system in general – just three categories and a range from 1 to 10 – might seem overly-simplistic, the website contains a lot of information about the methodology behind their ratings, with a meticulous breakdown of each of the categories: when calculating the environmental rating of a company for example, not only is transparency, resource use, and environmental impact taken into account, but for each of these categories there are sub-categories, some of these with yet more sub-categories, and each of these with their own rating.
But while the information is clear, the app comes up with some surprising findings. For example, looking up a product by Nestle – a company with a famously dubious reputation – the app informs you that this company has a rating of “Good!” and 6.7 points out of 10. While Nestle’s bad reputation among the public may be somewhat simplistic, it seems strange that a company recently accused of having used forced labour in its supply chains in Thailand, and child slaves to harvest cocoa in the Ivory Coast, is given such a high rating by the app.
This may in fact be one of the main issues with GoodGuide– that by collapsing dozens of data points into a single number, the rating system doesn’t actually inform consumers about the individual consequences of their purchases. And while it seems like the GoodGuide team have done their best to take as many different factors as possible into consideration, and aggregate the scores too, therefore generating a rating that reflects the relative importance of the different issues as accurately as possible, the simple single point system may be concealing some specific details that consumers might be interested in knowing more about.
Is it evident where the app gets its info from?
There is a strong focus on the scientific nature of the data used to make the ratings, and the unbiased results that this produces. The website does indeed provide thorough information about their sources, the indicators that they use and their scoring process. They apparently use over 1000 different sources, including scientific institutions, governmental agencies, commercial data aggregators, non-governmental organisations, media outlets and corporations.
Would You Recommend the App?
Due to the problems I had operating this app, I wouldn’t be keen to recommend it to anyone else. However, I feel that the idea behind it is a really good one – there’s definitely space for an app that offers transparent information about brands and products, and allows consumers to make informed decisions, rather than being misled by exaggerated or deceptive marketing claims. Unfortunately the concept is let down in the execution, particularly when it comes to the Android version of the app, and also the American-centric nature of the products, which makes it almost unusable.
To try it out for yourself, you can download the app here.
If you’re interested in searching the GoodGuide database and making use of the comprehensive information gathered there, the official website is a really good option. It offers the same information as the app, and more, and the site was recently made mobile and responsive, meaning it is accessible on any device.
This article is part of our RESET Special on sustainable consumption. You can find all the articles in the series here.